It's still a bit early to know for certain what dining treasures the late-breaking summer waves will wash onto the Jersey Shore this season. But given the economic slowdown, it's not surprising that the early tide of big new openings is noticeably lower this year than usual.
"It's been an awful winter, and a lot of people are hurting," says Ed Hitzel, a longtime radio commentator on the South Jersey dining scene who also publishes an eponymous restaurant magazine.
The usually bustling Atlantic City scene, in particular, is eerily quiet, with none of the splashy openings that have marked the casino town's emergence in recent years as a restaurant destination. Instead, the late-August openings from last year will get some extra attention. For example, Stephen Starr's two spots in the nongaming Chelsea hotel - the luxury steak house Chelsea Prime, and the updated Jewish diner Teplitzky's - will get considerably wider exposure this year in their first full summer.
Likewise, in Ocean City, early-season Shorebirds will get their first taste of the Caribbean-Med flavors being served at 701 mosaic, which Jamaican-born chef Herb Allwood opened last August with his wife, Pamela Womble, in a renovated corner space at Fourth Street and Ocean Avenue.
Throughout the rest of the Shore, meanwhile, the big buzz surrounds the shifting of familiar names to new addresses. Chief among them is talented Chip Roman, who has moved the hit Shore branch of his popular Conshohocken BYO, Blackfish, from Avalon to Stone Harbor.
Old-timers might wince to learn that Blackfish has replaced Henny's, the decades-old fish-house institution. But don't cry too hard. Roman served me one of the best Shore meals I've ever eaten last summer, with Cape May Salts topped with carbonated Meyer lemon foam and swordfish in chorizo vinaigrette that I can still taste. This is also a major step for the ever-ambitious Roman, who now has a liquor license and more than 200 seats, with hopes for more if plans for a boutique hotel here materialize in the future.
Roman's arrival will likely soften the blow from the closing of nearby Sea Salt, Lucas Manteca's creative New American BYOB. But Stone Harbor's loss is Cape May's gain as the Argentine-born Manteca brings his contemporary South American flair to the posh Victorian Ebbitt Room in the Virginia Hotel, which this summer celebrates its 20th season under the current ownership.
The classic fine-dining elegance of Ebbitt's dining room is quite a change from the funky BYO setting of cozy Sea Salt. But Manteca's inventive seasonal approach should get plenty of fresh inspiration from the nearby 60-acre Beach Plum Farm launched last year by the Virginia's owners, Cape Resorts Group, to supply the Ebbitt Room and their other restaurants (including the Blue Pig at Congress Hall) with everything from baby beets to heirloom radishes.
According to Cape Resorts' Curtis Bashaw, Manteca has also been recruited to recast the old Rusty Nail in the Coachman's Motor Inn (now being refurbished as The Beach Shack) into a classic Jersey fish shack along the lines of Manteca's Quahog's in Stone Harbor. That project will likely not be ready until mid-June, says Bashaw. But the casual Quahog's, thankfully, will still be up and lobster-rolling this summer, says Manteca, with slightly lower prices to cater to recessionary budgets.
Few neighborhoods, though, reliably see as much musical restaurant-shifting as the small storefronts along Ventnor Avenue between Ventnor and Margate, and this season is no exception. Johnny's Cafe, the popular Italian spot from John and Joanne Liccio, has moved from Ventnor to a bigger space in Margate, where the crowds have been coming since December for a dinner fix of crab-topped "veal Johnny" and hearty breakfasts of "Snap Crackle Pop" (French toast crusted in cinnamon-sugared rice crispies.)
But there's hardly an Italian shortage in Ventnor. That's especially true with the opening of Domenico's by chef Nicola Domenico. Snugged into the elegant confines of the original Savaradio, this 52-seater is serving up the same zesty upscale South Philly flavors that stoked my appetite in Domenico's previous posts (Red Room, Tucker's), with everything from homemade arancini rice balls to veal braciole and hearty pastas.
Domenico also doesn't hold back when it comes to the fresh lobster, serving it "Sinatra"-style with littleneck clams in tomato broth over spaghettini, or in a grand tasting over Portuguese paella for two at $50 (or $28 for one).
"I've got a fresh-lobster tank and I'm going to use it," Domenico says.
Amen, chef! It's good to hear the kitchens at the Jersey Shore this year haven't given up on indulgence completely.
If You Go
Blackfish Stone Harbor
The Ebbitt Room